Inner Peace in the Inner City: Meditation Replaces Detention at Baltimore School
This week, children across America are returning to school from the holiday break. Most are dreading it….except perhaps the students at Coleman Elementary.
Based in inner city Baltimore, Coleman Elementary has become a sort of “oasis of calm” for its student body. It all started when the school introduced a “Mindful Moment” room in 2016. The room is replete with lamps, plush pillows, and yoga mats. It also smells of lavender oil.
Whenever children are disruptive at Coleman Elementary, they are not sent to detention or the Principal’s office. Instead, they head directly to the Mindful Moment Room. There, volunteers from the Holistic Life Foundation guide the children through a series of deep breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness activities. In the words of coordinator Kirk Phillips, “It’s amazing. You wouldn’t think that little kids would meditate in silence. [But] they do.”
By the time they leave the room, the children feel calm, “re-centered”, and at peace. As one child reports, “I did some deep breathing, had a little snack, and I got myself together. Then I apologized”. Hence, it is no surprise that the number of suspensions at Coleman Elementary dropped from 4 in 2015 to 0 in 2016.
Upon returning to class, the children can focus for longer periods of time. They are also better able to cope with anger, stress, and anxiety. One child explains, “When I get mad at something or somebody, I just take some deep breaths, keep doing my work and tune everyone out”. Another adds that during an exam “I took deep breaths to stay calm and just finish the test“.
But the benefits extend well beyond the schoolhouse. By applying the same meditative techniques, the kids can also achieve nirvana at home. Sadly, for the pupils at Coleman Elementary, “home” can be a source of “overwhelming external stimuli and trauma”. Over 80% come from households that struggle financially[xi]. Some live in boarded-up row houses without adequate food and electricity. Others have family members who are incarcerated or victims of violence. For such students, mindfulness activities are essential tools to “self-regulate and manage themselves and their emotions”—not just for a day but “hopefully for the rest of their lives”.
Known as EAT (Everyone At the Table), the café has a defining feature: it operates on a pay-what-you-can model. In other words, although the restaurant suggests a donation of $15/meal, “patrons are welcome to pay less, more, or nothing at all”.
The idea behind the café is not new. In fact, there are about 50 similar restaurants throughout the United States. But EAT Café is working hard to set itself apart. While most of its counterparts are “cafeteria-style” and “hosted in church basements”, EAT Café is a full-service restaurant offering a 3-course meal (like kale salad, ginger-gazed chicken, and apple cobbler). According to Mariana Chilton, a partner from nearby Drexel University, “I wanted to make sure that this would not be confused with a soup kitchen”.
The goal is not just to alleviate hunger in Philadelphia, where 1 in 4 people are food insecure. It is also about providing food without shame in an environment where all kinds of people can “meet up and intermingle.” After all, “there’s a lot of shame and isolation that goes along with the experience of hunger”.
However, for EAT Café to have a lasting impact in the community, it needs to be “sustainable” beyond 2019 (when its grants expire). Currently, the café benefits from the generous donations of a number of partners. Metropolitan Bakery, for example, donates bread for each meal, La Colombe provides discounted coffee, and the Drexel Urban Growers supply vegetables. But EAT Cafe believes that it will require 60+% of its ingredients to be donated. Additionally, the restaurant estimates that it needs to serve about 130 meals/night (costing $3.25/meal) for an average of $15 each.
Unfortunately, EAT Café is off to a slow start. In its first week, it served just 125 meals. General Manager Donnell Jones-Craven believes that the key will be “getting the word out”. To this end, he plans to invest in a larger sign, to leverage twitter, and to speak with community groups. But the best spokespeople for EAT Café are the patrons themselves! Matso Baatarkhuu, a struggling student from Mongolia, says “I was about to starve and this place saved my life… It’s not just that it’s this pay-what-you-can model, but they also have great, respectful service. They really take care of you.”
Have you noticed throngs of people roaming your city with their eyes fixed on their smart phones? They congregate at landmarks and, from time to time, let out cheers of excitement. Chances are they are playing Pokémon Go, the latest video game craze!
The game, available on Apple and Android phones, guides players to local sites using GPS technology. At some sites, players can capture virtual Pokémon (“pocket monsters”) displayed on their phones over real-world locations. At Pokéstops, they can find useful items and Poké eggs, which hatch into Pokémon after the player walks 2 – 10 km. Finally, at “gyms”, they can train and battle their Pokémon. The objective is to catch and “evolve” as many types of Pokémon as possible.
Within days of its release on July 6, this “augmented reality” game topped the US App Store. It surpassed Tinder and Twitter in terms of installs and daily active users, respectively. Furthermore, it increased Nintendo’s market value by over $7 billion!
But Pokémon Go is not just benefiting the Japanese company. Doctors believe it is also boosting the health of the game’s ~21 million players. As described above, Pokémon Go forces players to walk extensively throughout their community. According to Jawbone, the average user’s daily step count rose from 6,000 to nearly 11,000 steps in the weekend following the game’s release.
Professor Matt Hoffman can testify: “I’ve spent an hour or two at a time venturing around the community to find Pokéstops. There’s no doubt about it, I am exercising more as a result of playing the game”. In many cases, such exercise replaces detrimental activities, like sitting for extended periods and smoking/drinking to “de-stress”.
In addition to the obvious physical benefits, Pokémon Go is also enhancing the mental health of some users. For people with anxiety, depression, and agoraphobia, it provides “motivation to go outside and explore the world” as well as “a distraction from their fears and inner monologue”. In the words of one user, “I walked outside for hours and suddenly found myself enjoying it. I had the instant rush of dopamine whenever I caught a Pokémon and I wanted to keep going”.
Moreover, unlike most video games, Pokémon Go brings players together in real life (at Pokéstops, gyms etc). Players can interact and discuss their mutual desire to “catch ‘em all”. The result is a “sense of belonging, which can have a positive impact on our emotional and mental health”. This is especially true for individuals will social phobia or autism.
Of course, players should exercise common sense when playing the game. They should follow heat and outdoor safety precautions and avoid walking to dark, isolated places—especially in light of recent robberies. Also, they should look up! Already, several players have landed in the ER after falling into ditches, tripping on curbs, and walking into objects while glued to their phones.
30 Years after Chernobyl, Public Split on Nuclear Power
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the most catastrophic nuclear disaster in history. On April 26, 1986, one of the four reactors at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, spewing radiation into the atmosphere.
The disaster occurred following an “experiment” to determine whether the cooling pump system could function using low reactor power (in the event of an electricity failure). For the experiment, staff lowered additional control rods into the reactor core to reduce output to 20%. But they lowered too many and output dropped rapidly—to the point of almost complete shutdown. To counteract the drop, the staff raised more and more rods until, unexpectedly, power levels surged to 10+ times the normal level! Two explosions followed, rupturing the containment vessel and causing a fire that lasted 9 days.
The explosions released over 5% of the reactor core into the atmosphere, contaminating large swaths of Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and Scandinavia. Within 3 months, at least 31 people succumbed to acute radiation sickness and over 350,000 fled their homes. Another 4000+ people contracted thyroid cancer in ensuing years. (Going forward, experts believe that long-term radiation exposure will cause 9000 – 93,000 additional cancer deaths).
These efforts were “critical”. Yet, they have failed to prevent all further nuclear accidents. In March 2011, for example, the second largest nuclear disaster occurred at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi power plant. In this case, a massive earthquake off the coast triggered a 13-15 metre tsunami. The waves exceeded the seawall, flooding key buildings and destroying equipment needed to prevent nuclear meltdown.
Such incidents have prompted more and more countries to phase out the use of nuclear energy. These countries include Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and recently, Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel explained “After what was… an unimaginable disaster in Fukushima, we have had to reconsider the role of nuclear energy”. The country now plans to close all of its 17 nuclear reactors by 2022.
But despite its risks, nuclear energy has many redeeming qualities. It is energy dense, producing far more energy per unit of mass than any other source. It is cost-competitive thanks to low fuel costs. It provides more reliable base load energy than solar and wind power, which are weather dependent. And unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power generation produces minimal greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. In the words of Christine Todd Whitman, a former EPA Administrator, nuclear energy is “the country’s largest source of clean-air energy that’s available 24/7″ and is “a critical tool in combating climate change“. For these reasons, nuclear energy remains a key part of our energy mix, accounting for 20% of US electricity generation.
Word on the Street: New Muppet Promotes Female Empowerment
It’s not easy being a girl – especially in Afghanistan. Due to deeply entrenched cultural and religious beliefs, Afghan females are widely viewed as subordinate to their male peers. As a result, 85% of females receive no formal education. Moreover, only 12 – 24% of females are literate – one of the lowest rates in the world.
But “sunny days” may be on their way to the central Asian country. Afghanistan’s version of Sesame Street (Baghch-e-Simsin) is debuting its first Afghan character: a 6 year old girl!
Zari (meaning “shimmering” in Pashto and Dari) is a curious, lively, and confident girl with purple skin and a mop of colorful hair. She wears causal and traditional clothes, as well as a headscarf where appropriate. With characters like Elmo and Big Bird, Zari will appear in all 26 episodes, doing segments on health, exercise, and well-being. She will also interview a doctor and other professionals to determine “what she would need to do to become one herself”.
Zari’s role is not just to teach children who may lack access to other educational content. As a girl, she is also there to promote female empowerment and serve as a role model. In the words of Sherri Westin, Vice President of Sesame Workshop, “She is modeling for young girls that it is wonderful to go to school and that it’s ok to dream about having a career”. Program Manager Clemence Quint adds “we thought it was really important to emphasize the fact that a little girl could do as much as everybody else”.
Zari also has the potential to influence the attitudes of Afghan males in a non-threatening way. Research suggests that depictions of confident, educated girls “help shaped boys’ opinions as well”. According to Westin, the first 4 seasons of Baghch-e-Simsin have already “begun to open the minds of Afghan fathers about the value of educating their daughters”.
Of course, Zari’s success in redefining gender norms will depend greatly on viewership. Currently, Baghch-e-Simsin is the most watched program among young children in Afghanistan. Approximately 81% of children aged 3 to 7 have seen the show. However, TVs are less common in rural areas, where Zari is perhaps needed most.
Still, we have great hope for little Zari (as well as Chamki in India and Kami in South Africa). Maybe one street can change an entire nation!
Starbucks is synonymous with excess – after all, who really needs a $6.00, 440 calorie Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino? But now, the high-end coffee company is using its excess for a good cause. It is donating 100% of its leftover prepared meals to food banks and shelters through the FoodShare program.
Starbucks’ involvement in the program dates back to 2010. At that time, the company partnered with Food Donation Connection to donate unsold pastries. All other food, however, was simply wasted at the end of every day. Thus, baristas urged management to expand the program to include perishables, noting “its frustrating to throw away so much food—especially because you know that there are people that need it”.
According to Starbucks Brand Manager, Jane Maly, the challenge was preserving the food’s quality during delivery “so when it reached a person in need, they could safely enjoy it”. The solution arrived in the form of a fleet of refrigerated trucks. The trucks can visit the chain’s 7600 U.S. locations throughout the day to collect any unsold, edible items (including breakfast sandwiches, salads, paninis, Bistro Boxes etc). They can then deliver the items to the Feeding America network, the largest hunger-relief and food-rescue charity in the United States.
Starbucks first piloted the program in Arizona last July. Managers figured that if they could keep food cold and fresh in the heat of the Sonoran desert, they could do it anywhere! After a successful pilot, the company introduced the program nationwide (at participating Starbucks) in March 2016.
The coffee house predicts that it will donate almost 5 million meals by the end of its first year…and more than 50 million meals by 2021! This could take a sizable bite out of America’s hunger problem, which currently affects over 48 million people. As an added benefit, Starbucks will divert food waste from landfills, drastically reducing its environmental footprint. (Feeding America estimates that Americans produce 70 billion pounds of food waste every year!)
Starbucks also believes that its efforts could inspire other companies to do the same. “Our hope is by taking this first step, other companies will see the possibility for their participation and together we will make great strides in combating hunger”. These companies—ranging from grocery stores to restaurants—could even use the same fleet of refrigerated trucks. Then Starbucks’ impact could really go from “grande” to “venti”!
Americans are abuzz over American Sniper. The Clint Eastwood film grossed $105 million in its opening weekend, more than The Hobbit and Avatar. It has shattered January box office records in “red and blue states, small and large cities, tiny towns — everywhere”. Furthermore, it has earned 6 Academy Award nominations, including for best picture and best leading actor.
But Americans are buzzing about more than the blockbuster sales and moving performances. They are also embroiled in a heated debate on the subject of the film, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Kyle completed four tours in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. During this time, he racked up 160 confirmed enemy kills, making him the most lethal US sniper in history.
In 2009, Kyle received an honorable discharge after 10 years of service. He returned to Texas and wrote a best-selling memoir, in which he claimed to have killed over 200 enemy combatants, 2 Texan car thieves, and 30 looters after Hurricane Katrina. Ironically, Kyle met his end in 2013 when he “was shot point-blank and killed by Eddie Ray Routh, a veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”.
American Sniper, and its profile of Kyle, has provoked intense reactions on both sides. Some argue that the film glorifies a “misanthropic, racist, stone-cold killer”. In Los Angles, vandals painted “Murder!” on a billboard for the film. Others call the film “jingoistic propaganda”. Actor Seth Rogan, for example, likened it to the Nazi propaganda movie in Inglorious Basterds. But perhaps the most incendiary comments came from director and anti-gun activist, Michael Moore. Quoting his father, Moore stated that sniper “aren’t heroes” but “cowards [that] will shoot you in the back”. He noted that Martin Luther King Jr, honored this week, was “killed by a sniper’s bullet”.
On the flip side, many have fervently defended the film. Former Navy SEAL sniper instructor Brandon Webb says that the film “[celebrates] a hero...when the country needs a hero”. Country singer and veteran Craig Morgan hailed the film’s depiction of military sacrifice, stating “you have no idea what it takes for this country to maintain our freedoms”. And the often-controversial Sarah Palin wrote on Facebook: “God bless our troops, especially our snipers”.
Spokespeople for the film have a more measured response. Bradley Cooper, who portrayed Kyle, explains that “the film wasn’t intended to be political but a human story about a soldier’s life and internal struggles…We hope that you can have your eyes opened to the struggle of the soldier rather than the specifics of the war”. The filmmakers concur, asserting that they “wanted the movie to be a thoughtful character study of the most lethal military sniper in U.S. history”.
Regardless of your perspective, one thing is clear: American Sniper has triggered a critical conversation about America’s veterans (generating twice the average twitter volume for films). As noted in past blogs, these veterans face major challenges during the transition from military to civilian life, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the words of Cooper, “We need to pay attention to our vets … people are coming home, and we have to take care of them”.
Adding Fuel to the Fire: Will Plunging Oil Prices Hurt the Environment?
Oil prices are in free fall. On Monday, the price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude fell below $50 for the first time since 2009. This compares to a price of $105 per barrel just 6 months prior. Certainly, a drop of this magnitude could have considerable economic and geopolitical implications. But how will it impact the environment?
On one hand, analysts argue that the slide in oil prices could generate environmental benefits and opportunities. Foremost, the lower price of oil reduces the incentive of energy companies to drill for more. According to one shale pioneer, companies will “pull back and won’t drill until the price recovers”. This is particularly true for high cost oil fields with break-even points above $50 per barrel. Many such fields contain heavier oils, which require significantly more energy to extract/refine and create greenhouse gas footprints “nearly twice as large as lighter oils”. Thus, in the words of the National Resources Defense Council, “Low prices keep the dirty stuff in the ground”.
Secondly, the drop in oil prices and production will hurt the energy sector’s bottom line. While big oil can likely weather the storm, many junior oil companies will struggle to secure enough profit and financing to remain in business. In fact, some believe that OPEC is intentionally suppressing oil prices to “clean up the marginal market”. Already, the number of junior oil companies in Canada’s oil sands has fallen from 94 in 2007 to 43 (as of Q3 2014). This decline in oil companies could further reduce oil extraction.
Additionally, low oil prices will make it more “politically feasible to implement the carbon pricing reforms…necessary for significantly reducing emissions”. Consumers will “more readily accept” a carbon tax, for example, than when oil prices are already high. Hence, according to Virgin Airlines owner Richard Branson, “If governments want a carbon tax… would be the best time”. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers adds that “It would be a hugely important symbolic step ahead of the global climate summit in Paris late this year”.
But lower oil prices could also produce significant adverse environmental effects. The clearest effect is on oil consumption, which produces the greenhouse gases linked to climate change. Basic economics dictates that as the price of oil declines, there will be “more oil use now”. The same is true for oil products (e.g. gasoline) or complements (e.g. cars and flights).
Consider gasoline, for example. Cheaper oil translates into cheaper gasoline, as “crude oil accounts for about half of the price of gasoline at the pump”. In the short-term, this may lead to longer or more frequent vehicle use. Over the long-term, it may encourage consumers to purchase less fuel efficient vehicles or homes further from the city. Consequently, economists estimate that a 25% drop in gasoline prices could increase gasoline consumption by 2 – 5% immediately and 10 to 20% over the long-term.
With increased consumption of oil and oil products, the demand for alternative energy will also fall. This includes wind, geothermal, and solar energy (which was cheaper than oil before the drop). Likewise, “a sustained period of low oil prices will dampen investment in alternative technologies”, which appear “less urgent”. Governments could attempt to counter such effects through subsidies to producers or consumers. However, subsidies would need to increase as the price gap between oil and alternative power grows. For these reasons, some maintain that collapsing oil prices will “derail the green energy revolution”.
In sum, the net environmental impact of plummeting oil prices is “not immediately clear”. What is clear is that “Whether oil’s price tag is high or low, neither ensures climate protection”. So what, then, is the best long-term price of oil, from an environmental perspective According to experts at Harvard University, the ideal price range could be between $60 and $80. At $75 a barrel, for example, the price is “high enough to keep investments flowing into alternatives, while giving energy companies less reason to pursue expensive and risky oil fields that also pose the greatest threat to the environment”.
Examples of bipartisanship are few and far between on Capitol Hill. But in recent weeks, at least one bill has managed to win broad support from across the political spectrum: the ABLE Act for Americans with disabilities.
The implications of this Act would be significant. Americans with disabilities would no longer feel compelled to spend their money, or reject career opportunities, in order to qualify for government disability assistance (given assets limits). They would also gain access to the “same flexible savings tools available to other Americans” in the form of tax-exempt 529 accounts.
But not everyone is supportive. The Heritage Foundation, for example, calls the Act “a decisive step in expanding the welfare state” that would further complicate the tax code. In response, the NDSS asserts that “This isn’t a handout from government…it’s allowing families and individuals to save the private funds that they raised”. Some lawmakers have also expressed concern about lost tax revenue from the Act. However, key amendments (to limit eligibility and the number of accounts per person) have reduced cost estimates from $20 billion to $2 billion.
Going forward, the House of Representatives will vote on the ABLE Act in December. The Senate has not yet scheduled a vote, but supporters led by Senator Casey (D-PA) expect one before the end of the legislative session. Assuming that the bills reach the floor, their passage is virtually guaranteed. After all, with 381 House sponsors and 74 Senate sponsors, the Act enjoys a sizable majority of support in both chambers.
Want to learn more about the ABLE Act, or how you can help Americans with disabilities? Please contact our non-profit partners:
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. It is a month of particular importance for our current and former military members. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), an American veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes. This equates to 22 veterans a day, or 8030 a year. In fact, the suicide rate among veterans is an astounding 35.9 per 100 000, compared to 12.7 for the broader US population.
Disturbingly, many experts believe that the number of veteran suicides is “probably a lot greater than reported”. After all, the stigma and religious prohibitions surrounding suicide often prevent accurate labeling. Furthermore, medical examiners are often unaware of victims’ military service.
In some cases, veterans take their lives for the same reasons as their civilian counterparts: depression, other mental health issues, “difficult life circumstances”. However, the statistically higher suicide rate among veterans suggests that other factors are at play. Some experts point to veterans’ injuries, disabilities, headaches, and various forms of chronic pain. Others point to (potentially related) mental conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often linked to military combat.
To treat these issues, approximately 20% of US veterans rely on the VA system, rather than private healthcare. Thus, in 2007, congress mandated the VA to take more aggressive suicide prevention measures. Such measures included creating a 24 hour crisis line to direct troubled veterans to care (1-800-273-8255), and hiring suicide prevention coordinators in each VA hospital to meet weekly with high risk veterans.
But the VA system has largely failed. As revealed through the 2014 VA scandal, which prompted the resignation of Secretary Shinseki, the VA has left thousands of veterans on lengthy waiting lists. A medical center in Phoenix, for example, made 1700 veterans wait an average of 115 days for an initial visit! Moreover, almost a third of high risk veterans aren’t receiving the recommended follow-up care and over 250,000 disability claims are stuck in a processing backlog. To make matters worse, the VA has allegedly engaged in record falsification to hide these shortcomings.
In response, President Obama announced 19 executive actions last month to improve mental healthcare for active military members and veterans. Among other things, the actions aim to increase veterans’ access to psychiatric medications, enhance suicide prevention training, advance research on PTSD, and improve coordination between the Department of Defense and VA on mental healthcare services. Obama also unveiled partnerships with the private sector to provide student loan relief and mortgage interest breaks for veterans. The hope is to tackle some of “the root causes of depression among vets, including joblessness and homelessness”.
Realistically, the entire VA system needs an overhaul to address the suicide crisis. Jean Somers, mother of an Iraq war veteran who took his life, believes “We have to start to think big”. But the newly announced measures are certainly a step towards tackling this tragedy and restoring the “sacred trust” of our veterans. In the words of Obama, “They were there for America. We now need to be there for them.”